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As economy revs, community colleges see declines

WHEELING, W.Va. — The economy is improving, and that’s not such a good thing for local two-year colleges that thrived during the recession of the 2000s.

Enrollment numbers at West Virginia Northern Community College in Wheeling and Belmont College in St. Clairsville have been plummeting since peaking from 2005 to 2010.

Robert DeFrancis, dean of community relations at WVNCC, said enrollment at the school grew to as high as about 6,000 students a decade ago, but is now at about 1,700 students for the spring 2015 semester.

Likewise, Belmont College saw the most students in classes in 2010 at 2,319. Five years later, that number has dropped to about 1,000, according to Tim Houston, dean of student affairs and strategic enrollment management.

Both DeFrancis and Houston attributed the enrollment declines to an economy that is hiring workers who don’t see the need for more training and education.

“As a general rule, when the economy is doing poorly, community colleges and colleges in general do better,” DeFrancis said. “People can’t find work, so they go back to school. But when they find jobs, they decide to go to work rather than school. They think if they can get $10 to $12 dollar an hour for a position, why go back to school? … We as educators, though, believe no matter how good or bad the economy is, a person is going to be better off with an education and a degree.”

Figures show the decline in community college enrollment to be in direct proportion to the increase in employment numbers, Houston said.

“People come to community colleges to return to a job because the turnaround is quicker at a community college,” he said. “When the economy was bad, they came to school to get trained and retrained. When the economy is good, they don’t see the need.”

DeFrancis said a secondary reason for the enrollment decline is a change in rules pertaining to financial aid.

“Grants and loans tightened considerably,” he said. “People who traditionally had easier times getting free money to go to schools find they can’t do that any longer. … And in the Ohio Valley and West Virginia our population is down. The number of college-aged people has shrunk. This is all kind of a perfect storm in terms of impacting enrollment.”

The one community college where enrollment hasn’t decreased in the past 10 years is Eastern Gateway Community College in Steubenville, which has seen a steady increase in its number of students since 2004. This continued especially after EGCC was permitted to expand its programs into Columbiana, Mahoning and Trumble counties in 2009, and the college changed its name from the former Jefferson Community College.

Current enrollment for the college is at 3,019, up from 2,190 in 2010, according to Patty Sturch, dean of enrollment management.

“I would like to say we’re doing something wonderful here, but we’re really not,” she said. “If we were still Jefferson Community College, we would be in the same boat as the other schools.”

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